“Old people always think their time, their format, was better. Mine actually was.” — Tom Petty on PBS’s Soundbreaking
The bluegrass community, seemingly quite small, actually consists of thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world who celebrate a musical form that, according to its own origin story, has a specific birth date, precise definition, and a desperate need to stay within a so-called “template” defined by Bill Monroe on Dec. 8, 1945, the day that Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs first appeared together with his band The Blue Grass Boys on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. According to eyewitness accounts, as soon as the audience heard this unique sound come together with the syncopated banjo style perfected by Scruggs, they erupted joyfully, and the formula became etched in stone.
Since that moment, whose 71st anniversary will be celebrated the day after this column is posted, self-appointed champions, protectors, and judges have placed themselves in a position to declare whether music calling itself bluegrass is or is not “real” bluegrass, based on criteria they infer from the shape and sound of Monroe’s music on that day. There is, to my knowledge, no recording of that night’s performance, but there were several recording sessions held contemporaneously with the same band that attest to that sound.
Bluegrass has gone through highs and lows of popularity and public awareness through the years since then as new technologies, new means of presenting live performances, and a multitude of new bands from around the world have copied the format, experimented with it, responded to it from their own cultural viewpoint, and enriched it. During that time, there has always been a body of folks insisting that bluegrass be kept within the recognized template if it is to be called bluegrass. Here we are, three quarters of a century later, still fighting the same battles, while all around us musical formats have added new sensibilities to the original. Great instrumentalists like Tony Rice, Béla Fleck, and David Grisman put their stamp on the way their instruments were played in bluegrass bands, as did many others. Rockabilly, jazz, blues, rock and roll, punk rock, and, yes, hip-hop have influenced all forms of music, including bluegrass. There’s no telling what sorts of music will become a part of the bluegrass vocabulary. What we do know is that ground breaking bands like the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, New Grass Revival, Mountain Heart, Steep Canyon Rangers, the Infamous Stringdusters, and others have changed the vocabulary of bluegrass. Let’s look at a few of the changes.
Archie Warnock is an internet consultant who’s a member of the board of directors of Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, sponsor of the annual Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, one of the oldest and most distinguished festivals. Delaware Valley won this year’s IBMA Award for Event of the Year. Warnock has been part of the bluegrass scene around Baltimore since the early ’80s. Apparently, he’s the one who coined the phrase “Bluegrass music eats its own.“ By this, he means that each innovation, especially those met with success and recognition wider than among the elect, is often dismissed and derided, especially when they diverge from the narrow path.
Perhaps the most popular and, by bluegrass purists, ignored song these days might be “Wagon Wheel.” This song, a fragment of which was written by Bob Dylan and the rest finished by Ketch Secor, a founder of the band Old Crow Medicine Show, became a huge hit (34,000,000 plays on YouTube) and was certified platinum in 2013. It is widely derided by many bluegrass people as “not bluegrass.” Curiously, though, the song has found its way to the bluegrass stage at smaller festivals, where it can often by heard at jams or sung by local and regional bands. I’ve heard it sung in bluegrass kids academies at festivals, too. It’s clear that “Wagon Wheel” has introduced many people to what they think is bluegrass music. Where they go to find more bluegrass may define the future of the music. Meanwhile, a version recorded by former rocker and current country singer Darius Rucker has had over 85,000,000 plays on YouTube. Rucker is the first prominent African-American country singer since Charley Pride.
Chris Pandolfi, banjo player for the Infamous Stringdusters, distinguishes between bands that “came from” bluegrass and those that are bluegrass derived. Among contemporary bands that help define modern bluegrass are Greensky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, Punch Brothers, and Steep Canyon Rangers. They play bluegrass instruments in bluegrass style, cover old bluegrass songs, and continue to use three-part, traditional harmonies. Pandolfi distinguishes these bands from the Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, and Old Crow Medicine Show, which have come to some sort of bluegrass sound from other traditions, play the banjo with a flat pick, and don’t originate in bluegrass. For many, however, I’d suggest this is a distinction without a difference. Here’s a song from the Infamous Stringdusters’ first album, which captures much of the feel and vibe of traditional bluegrass.
And here’s a much later song that captures their attitude and more recent sound in a song about change in musical styles and approaches.
Perhaps the Gibson Brothers said it best in their award-winning song “They Called It Music,” which became the 2013 IBMA Song of the Year. This catchy tune, often heard in jams around the country, proclaims a universal value for music and its appeal to the heart and soul of listeners regardless of genre or performer. This great song will have very long shelf life in the repertoire of many singers and performers.